Barnett on Curtis, 'Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid'

Heather D. Curtis
Michael Barnett

Heather D. Curtis. Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 370 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-73736-5.

Reviewed by Michael Barnett (George Washington University) Published on H-Diplo (April, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: 

Heather Curtis has written a terrific, compulsively readable book about the Christian Herald, a newspaper begun and run in the late nineteenth century by two dynamic, energetic, and ambitious evangelicals, Louis Klopsch and Thomas De Witt Talmage. But the Christian Herald was more than a newspaper and these two trailblazers had more in mind than competing for readers in the religious community. During its heyday the Christian Herald rivalled the American Red Cross (ARC) for the title of the largest and most influential humanitarian organization in the United States, and Klopsch and Talmage hoped that their headlines and deeds would help save American Christianity and convert the world. Written with considerable grace and verve, Curtis’s Holy Humanitarians has rescued the Christian Herald from neglect and used its history to illuminate how the newspaper both reflected, and contributed to, trends in humanitarianism. 

The book is organized around an introduction, seven chapters arranged chronologically, and an epilogue. The introduction presents the three main characters—Klopsch, Talmage, and the Christian Herald. Klopsch spent his early years in and out of trouble and prison, and on his release from Sing Sing in 1877 he was a convert to evangelical Christianity with a strong interest in journalism and philanthropy for the urban poor. Talmage had his own run-ins with authority, though with other clergy who accused him of using deception and sensationalism that was dirtying religion’s reputation. The two met and began to collaborate in the 1880s around the idea of bringing American Christian charity to the world, and by 1899 they had purchased the American edition of the British newspaper, the Christian Herald, and began their dreams of publishing the most important religious paper of its day. They were wildly successful, as their circulation often surpassed many of the leading weeklies of the period. They had launched the paper at a period of considerable ferment in the United States and the evangelical community because of new biblical scholarship, immigration to the United States, race relations, a new phase of American imperialism, and economic despair. These and other developments were roiling the evangelical and Protestant community, and Klopsch and Talmage turned to humanitarianism and the idea of relieving suffering of distant strangers as a strategy for harmony. With its ambition to alleviate hardship at home and suffering abroad, the two publishers soon found themselves swept up into most of the major debates in the American and evangelical communities regarding the role of charity, philanthropy, and almsgiving in response to short-term and long-term ills. 

Chapters 1 through 7 are organized historically and around defining events in the history of the Christian Herald. Chapter 1 covers their introduction to disaster journalism with the bursting of the South Fork Dam and its massive death toll, a moment when they discovered the power of the press as broadcaster of information and mobilizer of charity, their rise to prominence in response to the Russian famine of 1892, and other reporting designed to address domestic ills. 

Chapter 2 covers the twin crises in Anatolia, the Istanbul earthquake of 1894 and the subsequent Ottoman campaign against the Armenians. Using the banner of humanity, the Christian Herald encouraged its readers to give to the victims of the earthquake even though they were predominantly Muslim, but then found this message undermined when the Ottoman government began attacking the Christian Armenians and threatening missionaries in the area. 

In chapter 3 the United States launches the next phase of its outward expansion as it becomes embroiled in Cuba, goes to war with Spain, and then seizes many of its possessions, including the Philippines. At first the Christian Herald cautioned against war and lobbied for a peaceful settlement of dispute, but the declaration of war by the United States and the paper’s ambition to be the top relief agency in the United States led it to craft an evangelical justification for war and imperialism. Importantly, the Christian Herald’s rationale included not only immediate relief but also greater ambitions of religious conversion and creating civilized states and peoples. 

Chapter 4 represents another step in the Christian Herald’s global reach as it ventures into India in response to the 1899 famine. Many of the same dynamics that were already present explain this movement, including organizational rivalry with the American Red Cross and Clara Barton, desire for status, hope to paper over divisions in the evangelical community, missionary zeal, and headstrong confidence that no agency is as effective. But there was an additional wrinkle triggered by the American occupation of Philippines—the desire to raise America’s image. The US image as a benevolent country was taking a beating because it was beating the hell out of the Philippines. In response, the Christian Herald bet that famine relief might be just what the doctor ordered. There were two other noteworthy developments. Its relief activity was directed at not just India but also a British-controlled India that was being partially blamed for the effects of the famine; the Christian Herald was now entangled with another country’s imperialism. Also, there was concern that its fundraising for relief was drawing contributions away from missionary work, putting the Christian Herald in conflict with other evangelical organizations and ambitions. Curtis also presents a fascinating story of the local Indian leader Pandita Ramabai. At the time she was well known among evangelicals and Indians for her work to provide famine relief and improve the conditions for women, children, and other marginalized people, but she has long been forgotten in the annals of humanitarianism. We need more accounts of indigenous humanitarianism and its interactions with global humanitarians. 

In chapter 5 the Christian Herald enters China, only to find that China leads back to the United States and its treatment of Chinese immigrants and other “Asiatic” populations reviled by white and Christian America; African Americans, who face daily persecution, lynching, and other forms of hardship and oppression; and Native Americans, who were herded into reservations and then left to try and survive. Talmage and Klopsch were progressives for their age, attempting to cultivate compassion and Christian charity toward those deemed others. But the United States was a white, Christian nation that felt under threat from those who were not white and not Christian, which were not the ideal conditions for teaching compassion.

Chapters 6 and 7 are about the Christian Herald’s decline. Much of the paper’s success owed to its founders, and their deaths took away the vision, energy, and connections that were elementary to its ability to survive and thrive in ever-changing waters. Its evangelical profile also began to lose to organizations that were more secular and technocratic, and then World War I boosted the ARC and left the Christian Herald in the rearview mirror.  Eventually it ceased to be a humanitarian organization and returned to being a paper. The epilogue ties the story of the Christian Herald to contemporary evangelical humanitarianism and broader questions regarding the dilemmas of humanitarianism. 

Curtis has made an important contribution to the study of religion and humanitarianism in general and the growing body of scholarship that is recovering American evangelicalism and its role in the world in specific. The story of the Christian Herald recovers important origins of American evangelicals abroad and helps to fill in the picture of American humanitarianism. But I am unconvinced that it provides an “alternative account of American humanitarianism” (p. 5). The story is extraordinarily well told, but there are few places that offer a surprising twist. If anything, the surprise is that the drivers, dilemmas, and problems of humanitarianism sound so familiar. There is the use of other peoples’ suffering for their own needs and the purposes of self-aggrandizement; the use of humanitarian “porn” in fundraising campaigns; the desire to connect with celebrities and politicians to raise the profile and status of the organization; the combination of self-interest and genuine feelings of benevolence in the actions and strategies of organizations and their leaders; questions of financial transparency; the clash between organizational principles and organizational survival and ambition; inter-organizational rivalries and trash-talking regarding who is the best and most effective organization; the desire to shift message to curry favor with great powers; the attention to market share; the use of publicity campaigns and materials to raise the profile of the organization; the tension between relief and development; the constant attention to and curation of doctrinal matters; and mission creep. Excavating the familiar and telling a great story about an unknown chapter is quite an accomplishment, but I do not see an alternative account of American humanitarianism.

Overall, this is a fascinating and significant contribution to the study of American humanitarianism and the role of private religious organizations in foreign affairs at the turn of the twentieth century. I highly recommended it.

Citation: Michael Barnett. Review of Curtis, Heather D., Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL:

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